Skip to main content

Pope Francis' gestures strike fire in our hearts

By Steven Avella, Special to CNN
updated 6:20 PM EDT, Fri March 29, 2013
Swiss guards stand in St. Peter's Square before the Easter celebrations at the Vatican on Sunday, March 31. Pope Francis led his first Easter Sunday celebrations with a Mass marking the holiest day in the Christian calendar. Swiss guards stand in St. Peter's Square before the Easter celebrations at the Vatican on Sunday, March 31. Pope Francis led his first Easter Sunday celebrations with a Mass marking the holiest day in the Christian calendar.
HIDE CAPTION
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
Pope Francis celebrates Holy Week, Easter
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Steven Avella: Pope Francis has used bold gestures to signal changes to come
  • Avella: Francis believes in simplicity and has embodied it in his actions and words
  • When words and rituals come together well, it can strike fire in human hearts, he says
  • Avella: Francis faces many challenges ahead, like repairing the church's credibility

Editor's note: Steven M. Avella is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a professor of history at Marquette University.

(CNN) -- Franklin D. Roosevelt had his Hundred Days.

Papa Francesco has had a little less than a month. Yet, like FDR, he has used bold gestures to alert the world that things in the Catholic Church would not be returning to business as usual.

For Catholics, images conveyed in a genuine way can be symbols of deeper realities. We are a sacramental church. God speaks to us through his word, but that word is often accompanied by ritual, gesture and symbol.

Steven Avella
Steven Avella

Pope Francis really believes in simplicity. So far, he has waved off any vestige of opulence (gold pectoral crosses and ermine lined mantles), walks rather than rides in a chauffeured limo, and for now at least refuses to live in the Apostolic Palace (a complex oxymoron, what apostle ever lived in a palace?). He chooses to live in a less pretentious guest house.

He invokes the patron saint of evangelical poverty, St. Francis, but this also comes from his Jesuit formation. The vow of poverty and the commitment to the poor is taken seriously among the Sons of Loyola—at least the ones I know. Forming young people to be "men and women for others" is not an idle slogan for a lamppost banner. Jesuits really do it and do it well.

Pope Francis washes youths' feet at detention center

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



This may seem to the cynical a mere show or public relations, and a few of those cynics are in the church. But something tells me this is the real thing. This is how he lived in Buenos Aires. He could have had a palace and all the accoutrements of fine living, and yet he chose something else—something simple, and closer to the people he wished to serve.

On Thursday, he washed the feet of young juvenile offenders at a detention center in Rome. Among them were two women; one of them was a Muslim. Let Catholics around the world take note. I can only marvel at this generous and loving gesture.

But in Catholic life, rituals are usually accompanied by words. Sometimes the words are difficult to understand or are prayed in flat and boring tones as though the celebrant doesn't believe them. But when word and ritual come together in the best way, it can strike fire in human hearts.

Pope Francis has uttered some marvelous words to accompany his actions. To his frail predecessor, "We are brothers." To the gardeners and janitors of the Vatican, "If we have a closed heart, we have a heart of stone." To priests, an exhortation to "pray over the realities of the everyday lives" of their parishioners, and "their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes." To the young people at the prison, "Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do and I do it with my heart."

Why did the pope wash prisoners' feet?

Pope Francis visits a youth prison
Pope Francis marks Good Friday

Simple, direct words from the heart of a pastor—words people can and will remember because they are accompanied by actions.

Eventually, the novelty of all this will fade, but the tasks ahead for the Catholic Church will not. Repairing its shattered credibility, especially with the young, will be awaiting Pope Francis each morning with his coffee.

Who will advise him? What kinds of men will he choose as bishops? How strong will he be in the face of certain opposition within and outside the church? We will see. "Francis, rebuild my church," said the Lord to the Poverello of Assisi. Pope Francis I'm sure also hears this same, "small, still, voice."

But perhaps we are in for even more surprises. The new pontiff has yet to complete the ritual of taking possession of his four basilicas in Rome. These highly ritualized events are accompanied by droves of cardinals and other clerics and offer the pope an occasion to say a few words to mark the occasion.

Opinion: Pope Francis' humble superiority

It was during one such ceremony in January 1959, at St. Paul Outside the Walls, that Pope John XXIII shocked the world by calling for an ecumenical council.

Could Pope Francis do the same? If he did, another Roosevelt --Teddy--might say, "Bully! " So would I.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Avella.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT